What are four mental skills crucial to learning things fast?
In today’s fast-paced economic environment, continuing to learn new skills and technology will always serve you well. By pushing yourself to keep on top of the latest tools in your industry, you set yourself up for long-term success. But what if the hardest part isn’t figuring out what to learn, but the actual learning? How do we begin to motivate ourselves and expand our knowledge when we’re solely responsible for our own education?
Erika Andersen is the Founding Partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting, and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. She has advised executives and companies like NBC Universal, Tory Burch, GE, Madison Square Garden, Hulu, and Viacom. She's the author of several best selling leadership books, and her newest is Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future. I recently interviewed Erika for the LEADx Podcast where we discussed the tips to learning fast and keeping a curious mind. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Why is it so important for us now to get good at things fast?
Erika Andersen: I spend—as you know, having read the book—a couple of chapters talking about that. The main thing is that everything is moving so much more quickly. This is something I don't think I do have to make much of a case for, although one of the things I used in the book is that Buckminster Fuller wrote a book about 35 years ago called The Critical Path, about how fast knowledge is doubling. He predicted that by now, human knowledge would be doubling at the rate of once a year. People who have followed up on his work say, “Yes, that's about right.” One hundred years ago, knowledge was doubling once every hundred years.
What that means is that for our grandparents and great grandparents, you get a job and then you pretty much do that job until you retire or die. Now, there's a study that was done recently with millennials where they found out that most millennials think that the job they have now will not exist by the time they're ready to retire, if they ever retire. I think we all know that. Last summer, I was doing a big speaking engagement and there were about 1,000 people. I said, “Okay, raise your hand if your job has not changed in the last year.” One or two people raised their hands, you know?
I've come to believe, and this is why I wrote this book, that the capability of learning new things, acquiring new skills and new understanding, quickly and continuously, is the key skill for everybody right now.
Kruse: You say there are four skills of mastery that we need in order to learn fast. What are they?
Andersen: I came upon these over the course of 30 years of doing this kind of work. You and I do the same kind of work, helping people become their best selves and learn new things. I noticed that people who were good at learning new things and not resting on their laurels, they had four mental skills that we came to think of and call ‘ANEW,’ which stands for ‘Aspiration,’ ‘Neutral self-awareness,’ ‘Endless curiosity,’ and ‘Willingness to be bad first.’
‘Aspiration’ means wanting, so what we found is that people who were especially good learners knew that they could raise their level of aspiration. People who aren't very good at learning, they figure, “Well, I don't want to learn it, I'm not going to learn it. It's boring. Next!” People who are good learners say, “Well, I may not want to learn it now but I need to, so how do I raise my level of aspiration?” They know that unless they want to, they're not going to. What we found was that good learners do that by thinking about the personal benefits, the benefits that will accrue to them personally by learning a new thing. Because that's how we see in what ways it will benefit us. You can look to those things, you can look for those things, and once you get clear about how it's going to benefit you, you can feel your aspirations starting to rise.
Then, ‘neutral self-awareness’ is just exactly what it sounds like. People who are good learners know where they're starting from, and my favorite example to give of the opposite of this is when I always used to watch American Idol and there were always people on there who literally could not sing.
You think to yourself, “What on earth made you think you could sing?” You realize that they're not just not neutrally self-aware. They probably have one person in their life, their mom or their boyfriend or whatever, who tells them they can sing. Then, all of the other inputs they're getting, they just completely ignore. People who are good at learning, they're willing to get clear about where they're starting from. Because it's only when you're accurate about where you're starting from that you know what you're going to need to progress. We talk in the book about how can you get accurate in your self-awareness?
The third thing, ‘Endless curiosity’ is, I love this one because it's inborn. If you've ever been around little kids, your own or anyone else's, they are relentlessly curious. In fact, in the course of doing research for the book, what I found is that a lot of brain scientists think of curiosity as a drive in babies and small children, the same way hunger and thirst are drives.
It's a survival mechanism, and they define curiosity as the drive to know and understand. Kids have that. If you've seen a little kid do something 20 times and ask a million questions, they have this relentless urge to understand and to master. What happens is we get socialized out of that as we get older. I always say the difference between a four-year-old and a 14-year-old is the four-year-old will say, “Oh, explain that to me. Why does that happen?” A 14-year-old says, “Oh, no, I know more about that than you do, and I'm probably smarter than you are, too.”
Then, it gets worse as we get to be grownups. None of us want to be the person in a meeting that goes, “Oh, wait. I don't understand that. Can you explain it to me?” What we talk about in the book is how do you re-engage that childhood curiosity, because obviously, if you look at kids, it's such jet fuel for learning. If you can really re-own and re-engage your childhood curiosity, everything goes so much more quickly when you're trying to learn something new.
Kruse: I've been having a lot of conversations about the importance of psychological safety at work, where it's okay to make mistakes and ask questions.
Andersen: Absolutely critical. That's a great insight, and in fact, the last interview I was doing about the book, somebody said, “Well, how do you create that kind of environment?” I said, “You as a leader have to model it.” It's actually pretty straightforward. I've seen this so many times. If a group has a leader who is willing to in a meeting go, “Oh wait, can you explain that again? Or use different words. I'm not sure I understand that.” Or, “Can you tell me much more about that? I really haven't had much experience.” It's so liberating because then everybody in the room gradually becomes willing to ask those kinds of questions and to have that free form, “What's going on around here?” learning environment.
But if the leader doesn't model it, it just won't happen, because then what's being demonstrated to people is it's not safe to do that.
Kruse: I interrupted you, there is a fourth, right?
Andersen: Yes, and the fourth one is the big kahuna. It's the one that is most difficult for most people, ‘Willingness to be bad first.’ The problem is that we love being good at things, but we don't like the process of getting good at things, especially if we have to do it in public, which we have to do at work. By the time most of us get to be 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, we like to think of ourselves as experts. To go back to being a novice, and it's not really about failure so much. It's about noviceness. It's about being in that situation where you're kind of clumsy and you're slow and you have to ask dumb questions, and you have to do things over and over again and you're not satisfied with the outcome.
That state of being a novice is very uncomfortable for us, so what I talk about in the book is the mindset, because mindset is key. The mindset that you need to get into in order to be able to be comfortable in that uncomfortable state of being a novice, which allows you to move through it much more quickly.
Kruse: Where do people get stuck as they're trying to develop their ‘ANEW’ skills?
Andersen: I love that question, and there are two different answers. The first answer is that different people have different rough spots, like if I was going to use myself, my ‘Willingness to be bad first’ is my hardest. I am both impatient and hate being bad at stuff, so I've really had to work on that over the years. Whereas for my husband, he's remarkably good at that and is a great model for me. He's like, “Yep, I suck at this. Let me just try,” His hard thing is ‘Aspiration.’ It's hard for him to recognize that he can want to do something that he doesn't now want to do. He really has to work on that. I think that's like a fingerprint.
Some people, it's hard for them to be curious, some people it's hard to be self-aware, but the second answer is that for most people, the main difficulty is the skill that underlies all of these, and especially the last three, the ‘NEW,’ is being able to manage your own self-talk. Because all of these are mental skills, they live in the preface of your own brain, and how we talk to ourselves about ourselves is at the root of being able to be neutrally self-aware and curious and willing to be bad.
Kruse: Using mindfulness and being aware of the chatter that's going on in our mind, and to realize that we are not that self-talk, and we have some control over it, right?
Andersen: Precisely. A lot more, and what I just, if somebody reads the book they will see this is really a theme throughout, that not only can we become aware of it, we can revise it and have that really change the way we feel and the way we behave, that we have far more control over that interior monologue than we think we do. That is a powerful tool to have. A lot of people don't even know that they talk to themselves, and people, those of us who do know we talk to ourselves, we don't often feel like we have control over it. It's sort of like subliminal advertising, because it's going on inside your head, under your conscious awareness. It runs your life and you're not aware of it, but man, if you can start to manage that, it's such a powerful tool.
Kruse: Someone was telling me recently, he said, “It's never the first thought that gets you in trouble. It's the thought about that thought. It's the second and the third.”
Andersen: I'll give you a “Be Bad First” example. I agree with everything you're saying. I think where people don't make it as useful as they can is they stop at just mindfulness, just awareness. You can actually revise it. For instance, most of the time when people are in that novice state, especially if they're having to do it in public, at work, they're learning a new thing and the kind of talk that goes in your head, the monologue that's running in your head is, “Oh, my God, I'm terrible at this. I'm going to look so bad. People are going to think I'm an idiot. This will just ruin my reputation, I won't have any credibility.” It's like static, right?
It's just like 100 thoughts in your head, and it fills up your mind so much that you don't actually have any bandwidth to take in new stuff. So what we encourage is to literally change your self-talk. You hear all that going on in your head, and instead, it turns out that the ideal self-talk for being bad is to think to yourself two things, two balancing things. One is, “I am going to be bad at this for a while.” Seriously. “I've never done it before, how could I possibly be good? It would be unrealistic for me to expect myself to be good, so I am going to be bad at this for a while.” And, “I bet I can get good at it. I've gotten good at a lot of things.”
Those two, they're both true. They're both accurate, and if you can really just think those, you start thinking, “I'm terrible, I'm an idiot, everybody's going wrong.” And then you go, “Wait a minute. I'm going to be bad at this for a little while and I know I can get good.” It's almost magical. It's like the noise in your head starts to calm down, you start to actually be able to see the situation around you, and you can start to learn. I've done this myself a lot, so I'm not just making this up.
One example that happened to me recently that was so profound… I always try and eat my own caviar. Last year, I realized one learning challenge I could take on is to really become fluent in Spanish.
Because I took Spanish in high school, and I know it a little bit, whatever you learn in high school. I said, “You know what? This is something that I can do so I'm going to do it.” One of the things that I decided to do was we have a consultant, Vanessa, who speaks four languages fluently, one of which is Spanish. At the beginning of last year, I said, “Okay, Vanessa. A couple of times a month, let's have a conversation in Spanish by fall,” and she's in D.C. She was new to us, so we figured it would be a way for her to learn a bit more about Proteus, and a way for me to practice speaking business Spanish.
Before the first call, I was so anxious and so nervous and thought, “Oh, I'm going to sound like such an idiot, and there's all these words I'm not going to know.” Just in my head, all this noise. I said to myself, “I'm going to be bad at this to start with. I haven't really practiced Spanish for 40 years, and I'm not going to be good at this, and I bet I can good. I'm kind of relentless and I love language, and ultimately I'll get good.” It was such a relief. All that noise started to go down in my head.
That first conversation, even though it was hard and a little embarrassing, it was about one-tenth as difficult as it would have been otherwise. I just kept coming back to that self-talk in my head as the like, “Oh, you're an idiot.” That would come up and I'd go, “No, no. It's okay. I'm going to be bad at this for a little while. I'm going to get good at it.” By the end of that half-hour conversation, I was improving. I could feel myself improving. Now, I'm not entirely fluent, but a year plus later, I could probably be doing this interview in Spanish.
Kruse: You're not saying, “I am fluent in Spanish,” because I have a feeling my subconscious knows I'm not fluent in Spanish.
Andersen: That's exactly right. Ding, ding, ding! Because whenever we talk about managing your self-talk and people say, “Oh, is that stupid smiley affirmation saying?” No, because your subconscious mind is smart and will reject that as BS. You need to change your self-talk in a way that is acceptable to you. This, “I'm going to be bad at this for a little while and I bet I can get good at it,” that's accurate. That's true. Your mind goes, “Yep, that seems right, okay. I can accept that.”
Kruse: I’ve been sharing this with my kids, too. Because changing some of that self-talk, it will literally change your physiology, and then make good things happen.
Andersen: Exactly, exactly. It changes your physiology; it changes your psychology. It's really quite amazing. I love that you're on this. I love that you’re teaching it to your kids. I've always tried to share the best of what I understand with my kids. And now, as grownups, they tell me they like it.
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to become 1% better every day. Give us a challenge. What do you want us to go out and do?
Andersen: Exactly what we've been talking about. Mastering your self-talk is the key to learning, which is the key to success. I would challenge every one of your listeners to at some point in the next 12 hours, just sit quietly for a moment and notice what you're saying to yourself. If it's not helpful, if it's not supportive, if it's getting in your way, just substitute something which is true and accurate, but more supportive, and see what happens.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.